A decade ago, the South African city of Durban was facing severe water shortages. Dam reservoirs were decreasing at alarming rates, and were 20% lower than average levels. At least one in four residents were already living in water-stressed informal settlements. The city was expanding faster than municipal capacity could keep up with. Service backlogs and proliferating slums seemed to be entrenching poverty.
This reality is all too common in urban areas across Africa: fast-growing cities are struggling in the face of more frequent water shocks, climate stresses and natural disasters. Moreover, those with the least ability to cope with the effects of too much, too little or too dirty water are always at the frontlines, impacted the most.
For far too long, the approaches to address these challenges have been inadequate. Business-as-usual practices too often narrowly focus on improving traditionally constructed infrastructure (also known as “grey infrastructure”) such as expanding water supply and building more dams and treatment plants, rather than targeting root causes and centering the people who are most impacted.
But by taking a regional approach and investing in participatory processes, Durban has been able to identify, target and mitigate the root causes of its water woes for its three million residents. The city is one of many on the frontlines of the effects of climate change, but also in the right place to lead on climate action that centers resilience.
This is one finding from WRI’s new report, Water Resilience in a Changing Urban Context: Africa’s Challenge and Pathways for Action, which highlights the ways in which African cities understand, plan, govern and finance their water systems need to change.
Durban has addressed monumental water-related challenges with system-wide solutions that reach its informal settlements and avoid costly materials. Its approach to water resilience planning can offer lessons for cities around the world.
Go Beyond Traditional Solutions
Improving urban water resilience for today’s complex and growing cities requires going beyond traditional solutions. It needs collaborative action and alignment across a wide set of stakeholders, including those who are impacted by water and the water system. Planning must go further than just the water sector, taking into consideration how forests are managed, where roads and housing are built, and how residents cope with shocks and stresses, such as flooding.
Durban, part of the eThekwini Municipality, has been building urban water resilience and integrating cross-sector considerations for over 10 years. Like other African cities, Durban has high levels of poverty, a housing backlog and a great deal of informal development. But city officials worked to identify the unique characteristics of their municipal area, including their post-apartheid context, biodiverse environment and local knowledge spanning across diverse groups. Recognizing and integrating the region’s specific strengths and needs allowed for flexibility and inclusivity in the city’s approach to water resilience. This enabled them to implement strategies that went beyond traditional water planning and create better results across all local communities.
So how did Durban do this?
Taking a Regional Approach
First, city officials understood that a regional approach was essential. A watershed area is typically much larger than the city’s jurisdiction, including other nearby cities, towns or rural areas, which can make coordination a challenge. Pollution, waste and erosion from forest degradation in upstream areas can all negatively impact water supplies and ecosystems downstream.
In 2013, the eThekwini Municipality, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), private companies and NGOs established a multi-stakeholder, regional partnership known as the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP). The initiative was developed for all municipalities and relevant actors in the uMngeni River catchment area to account for the entire watershed ecosystem, an area that supplies drinking water to millions, including Durban, and supports several key industries. It has been estimated that some 20% of the gross national product of South Africa is generated within the uMngeni River catchment. Stakeholders recognized that coordinated, regional efforts were key to protecting ecosystems that impact water supply, water quality and the ability to buffer storms.
For example, one pilot project focused on rehabilitating a small but polluted tributary upstream of the uMnegi River. Subject to heavy industrial pollution, untreated sewage and extensive littering, the poor condition of this tributary results in great challenges — from higher water treatment costs for downstream users, local farmers unable to irrigate crops and water unsuitable for domestic use for residents. The UEIP is working on restoring tributaries like these, as well as wetlands and floodplains — which can naturally improve water quality — while working with nearby industries and residences to address issues of illegal dumping. Targeted improvements upstream are shown to save immense costs downstream, a strategy that’s also working for the watersheds of Nairobi, Kenya and Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Inclusive, Community Participation
Second, Durban’s approach prioritized participatory processes that cultivate a shared vision from a wide range of groups, including the urban poor. The city incorporated a “critical thinkers” group, including residents from informal settlements, local businesses, environmental activists and interfaith communities, to challenge the status quo, develop alternative solutions and refine what resilience means in the city’s specific context. It is essential to incorporate community stakeholders because their perspectives help shape and define resilience in a locally rooted way that responds to real challenges on the ground.
Involving these groups has helped Durban keep resilience efforts tailored to local needs — and the payoffs are clear. The extensive community engagement processes identified system-wide levers for change — areas that underpin all resilience challenges — and a long-term vision for systemic, transformative change. Durban is now implementing its Resilience Strategy’s pilot initiatives, with a focus on integrating traditional governance systems and collaborative action with informal settlements. For example, the city has worked with informal settlements to install more than 2,500 community sanitation facilities, upgrade water storage tanks and standpipes, and launch a new program to empty and treat waste from pit latrines.
Few cities have resilience plans that center system-wide approaches and equity. Durban’s focus on transformative changes and equity will not only ensure greater resilience against water impacts, but catalytic shifts across the city that strengthen systems in the face of any shocks, stresses and crisis in the future.
Building Water Resilience Requires Systemic Change
Despite these efforts and substantial progress, the city still faces challenges. In 2019, Durban experienced severe flooding, resulting in at least 60 deaths from collapsed buildings, mudslides and sinkholes. With climate change intensifying, building resilience is urgent and critical, requiring an ongoing commitment.
Durban is not alone. Across sub-Saharan Africa, cities face converging challenges: rapid urbanization, rising climate threats and skyrocketing demand for increasingly constrained water resources. Over half of urban residents across sub-Saharan Africa live in informal settlements, and even more lack safe, affordable and reliable water and sanitation services. Over the last three decades, 654 floods in Africa have affected over 38 million people. By 2050, a projected 1.5 billion people on the continent will call cities home — more than double the number today. Over 65% of urban residents in Africa are expected to face “extreme” climate risks, yet the continent contributes the least to climate change. Without urgent action to build urban water resilience, cities will not be equipped to withstand these shocks and climate impacts will continue to undermine the security, wellbeing and development prospects of Africa’s urban dwellers.
Fundamental shifts are required to scale the type of action Durban implemented across more cities. Initiatives in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to restore critical ecosystems are promising. Efforts in Nairobi, Kenya to protect vulnerable neighborhoods from flooding and water stress through participatory informal settlement upgrading highlight inclusive, impactful approaches to planning. Lastly, pan-African initiatives like the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the African Green Stimulus Programme — endorsed by all ministers of environment across Africa — signal critical momentum toward building a more climate and water-resilient future.
But ultimately, city and regional decisionmakers, including national governments and the international community, need to shift how cities plan, manage, govern and finance their water and urban systems. Investing in water resilience improves livelihoods, protects ecosystems, confronts climate change and makes life better for all. As the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis have made clear, it is imperative to accelerate systems change that can underpin a more resilient, just and sustainable world.
Marcella Kim is Project Coordinator & Research Analyst for Urban Resilience at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Jillian Du is Research & Engagement Strategist at The Climate & Clean Energy Equity Fund, and former Research Manager for Inclusive Cities at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Liku Workalemahu Habtemariam is a consultant to WRI’s Urban Water Resilience program in Addis Ababa, leading the city-level assessment work.
Fitsum Gelaye is an urban planner and designer who has worked on urban resilience and sustainability projects with a wide range of stakeholders, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Addis Ababa’s Resilience Project Office, and Columbia University.